250 words DQ

Chapter 5:

Making Judgments

Snapshot of an episode from "Cupid's Arrow." A woman sits on one side of a partition and talks to men whom she cannot see on the other side of the partition.

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Learning Objectives

By the end of the chapter you should be able to:

Contrast conscious and automatic processes

Define schemas and scripts and discuss their importance

Describe the value of heuristics

Identify and explain the availability heuristic, representativeness heuristic, and affect heuristic

Describe how the conjunction fallacy and the base rate fallacy contribute to errors in judgment

Define belief perseverance, confirmation bias, and illusion of control

Describe how the self-fulfilling prophecy can affect behavior

Chapter Outline

5.1 Conscious and Automatic Processes

5.2 Schemas and Scripts



5.3 Heuristics

Availability Heuristic

Representativeness Heuristic

Affect Heuristic

5.4 Errors in Judgment

Belief Perseverance

Confirmation Bias

Illusion of Control

5.5 Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Chapter Summary

* * *

Many a disastrous date is doomed from the beginning. A few minutes on a blind date can often be enough to determine whether a second date is warranted. In the 1990s, Rabbi Yaacov Deyo was working as the educational director for a Jewish resource group and wanted to encourage the single men and women he worked with to get married, but the traditional one-on-one dinner and a movie seemed cumbersome and time consuming. His solution was to introduce a large number of men and women to one another, and to limit their interaction to 7 minutes (Deyo & Deyo, 2003). And thus, speed dating was born. Speed dating had the advantage of introducing a large number of men to a large number of women and to weed out unlikely pairings without either party investing a great deal of time.

From the more routine to the more specific situations of our daily life, we need to make a number of decisions and judgments. Our cognitive systems are built to help us make those decisions efficiently, though, at times, those efficiencies lead us to errors. In this chapter, we will discuss both the conscious processing of information we all engage in and the unconscious, automatic processing our cognitive systems allow for. Some of our quick assessments of objects and events, and our quick decision making, rely on the work of unconscious systems. But such judgments lead to errors and can influence how others respond.

5.1 Conscious and Automatic Processes

When you make a decision do you weigh your options, carefully sorting out pros from cons? Have you ever made a decision because you had a gut feeling? Psychologists believe that our cognitive processes operate at two levels: the conscious and the automatic. The thought processes we are aware of and tend to direct are on the conscious level. We might involve conscious thought when we make a decision by carefully weighing our options. Processes that are done without our intention or awareness, such as when we make a decision based on our gut feeling, occur on the automatic level. Researchers have called these principles a variety of names, but they all focus on some kind of rational, conscious process and another more emotional or experientially-based unconscious process (Epstein, 1994; Kahneman, 2003; Peters, Hess, Vastfjall, & Auman, 2007; Reyna, 2004).

Table 5.1 summarizes the basic differences between these systems. As you can see from the table, the processing of the automatic system is something that we are generally not aware of. It processes or interprets stimuli that come from our environment, and when it has completed processing or gets stuck, something researchers call disfluency, it alerts the conscious system (Alter, Oppenheimer, Epley, & Eyre, 2007). The capacity of the conscious system is much smaller than that of the automatic system but it is a system we can direct. The unconscious system may be processing something you are not interested in working on; it is only the conscious system that allows you to deliberately focus on a particular idea, situation, or problem.

Table 5.1: Characteristics of the automatic and conscious systems

Automatic System Conscious System

Fast Slow

Outside of conscious awareness Within conscious awareness

Effortless Effortful

Large capacity Limited capacity

May do many tasks at once Limited to very few tasks at once

Imprecise, general responses Nuanced responses

Sometimes these systems conflict with one another. An example of the conscious and the unconscious system working against one another can be seen in the Stroop Color–Word Task (Stroop, 1935). In this task, people are asked to identify the color in which letters or words are printed. When the letters are meaningless, such as the lines of Xs in Column 1 of Table 5.2, the task is easy and people go through the list quickly. However, when the letters spell a color that is not the same as the color of the ink, people tend to stumble. The time it takes someone to go through the second list is much longer than the time it takes to go through the first list. The reason for this is the fact that reading color words is a well-practiced skill for most adults; most of us read the word whether we want to or not. When the two do not match, there is a fight between the automatic system, which says "Green! The word is green!" and the conscious system, which focuses on the color of the blue ink (although, not everyone agrees with this interpretation; see Besner, Stolz, & Boutilier, 1997). This slower response when dealing with two conflicting stimuli is called the Stroop effect. The Stroop effect was named after J. R. Stroop who developed the task in the 1930s and wrote about the phenomenon. Since then, a variety of other tasks have been developed that have similar findings (MacLeod, 1991).

Table 5.2: The Stroop color–word task

For each column identify the color of the ink in which the letters are written. For example, in the first column the first set of letters is red.

Column 1 Column 2

XXXX Green




XXXX Brown


XXXX Green

Expand Your Knowledge:

Stroop Effect

To try out the Stroop effect for yourself by clicking here. The program will time you as you identify the ink color in two different tasks. You can compare those times to see if naming an ink color in a contrasting color word slows you down.

The conscious and automatic systems do work together at times. Imagine you are at a busy and boisterous bar and are talking with a small group of people. Suddenly, in the next group over you hear your name being spoken. You were not actively listening for your name and were engrossed in your conversation, yet, you somehow heard it. This often occurs when we recognize our own name or other self-relevant information amidst other distracting stimuli without consciously listening for it (Moray, 1959; Wood & Cowan, 1995). In this scenario, our conscious system is oblivious to what those in the other group are talking about, but your automatic system is monitoring what is going on around you. When your name is spoken, your unconscious system alerts the conscious system to pay attention and suddenly you are straining to hear what is being said about you (Alexopoulos, Muller, Ric, & Marendaz, 2012; MacLeod, 1998). Similarly, our own faces jump out at us from a sea of others faces; you may have noticed this phenomenon if you have ever looked at a group picture and quickly noticed your own face (Tacikowski & Nowicka, 2010).

Test Yourself

Click on each question below to reveal the answer.

What are some characteristics of the conscious system?

What are some characteristics of the unconscious system?

5.2 Schemas and Scripts

Our automatic system allows us to make shortcuts and come to conclusions without taxing the conscious system (Shah & Oppenheimer, 2008). In fact, when our resources are depleted we are more likely to use the shortcuts offered by the automatic system (Masicampo & Baumeister, 2008). The automatic system has two ways of doing this; one focuses on things like objects or people, while the other focuses on events, what they include, and how they are sequenced.


Figure 5.1: Schemas

Illustration showing what a person's schema for a baseball game might include. The words "baseball game" sit to the left of an outline of a human head. An arrow points from the words to the head, and within the head are drawings of a baseball diamond, a hand holding an U.S. flag, and peanuts.

Your schema for a baseball game may include a baseball diamond, a salute to the American flag, and peanuts.

Dorling Kindersley RF/Thinkstock, iStockphoto/Thinkstock, iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Chapter 2 introduced the idea of schemas as knowledge structures that organize what we know and that can affect how we process information. Self-schemas are knowledge structures about the self, but we can have schemas about many other things in our world, such as animals, objects, places, and concepts (see Figure 5.1). When we are making judgments, schemas may affect those judgments. For example, a boss might have a schema about an employee as a good, reliable worker. If that employee is late one day, the boss makes a different judgment about that employee than she would if the boss had a schema about that employee as lazy and irresponsible. Because of the positive schema about her employee, the boss might also quickly remember the employee's contributions to past projects, eventually concluding that the employee had a good reason to be late. While schemas can help us remember things by organizing them into preconceived structures, they may also create false memories for us (Lampinen, Copeland, & Neuschatz, 2001). If you were to sit in a professor's office for several minutes and then, outside of the office hours later were asked what you saw in that office, your schema could help you answer. You expect to see bookshelves with books, a desk, a computer, a stapler, and some pens in a professor's office. As you remember what was in the office, your existing schema might help you remember that you saw a bookshelf. But the schema may lead you to remember something that was not there. If you expected to see a stapler, you might report that a stapler was there, even if it was not.


How schemas influence behavior.

Critical Thinking Questions

Why are schemas considered a fundamental part of social psychology?

How does a victim's schema put people at a higher risk of being victimized?

Schemas can also help us remember items because they violate a schema. If you were to see a stuffed teddy bear in a professor's office, you might remember and recall it because it was outside of your typical professor's-office schema. This type of effect may have serious consequences when we examine the role of schemas in eyewitness testimony in court. Researchers have found that schemas for crimes can influence the details people remember about crimes they witness (Tuckey & Brewer, 2003). For example, you would expect a bank robbery to include a thief with a bag; a bag is a schema-consistent element. You would not expect the thief to wear bright clothing; bright clothing is a schema-inconsistent element. People tend to be accurate about schema-relevant and schema-inconsistent information. Information that is irrelevant to the schema is most likely to be forgotten.

Schemas can be fairly broad, applicable in a wide variety of situations or with a wide variety of objects or people, or relatively narrow, being very specific to one or two objects, people, or situations. Broader schemas take us longer to learn, as we encounter different ways to think about and view a particular entity or problem. But these broader schemas may allow us to be more flexible (Chen & Mo, 2004). For example, as a child you might have learned the concept of sharing toys and applied it when playing at home with friends. But, if you were provided with examples of a variety of ways to share over the course of your life, including sharing resources and time with others, you may be more able to recognize when someone needed your help and know how to provide it.


How do you know what to do when you go into a restaurant? How do you know what is expected on a first date? In our lives it is helpful to know how to act and respond in social situations. Psychologists call expected series of events scripts, like the scripts in a movie or play that tell the actors what is going to occur next. Scripts can be very helpful to us. When a restaurant follows a script, both the server and the diner know what to do and what is expected of them without having to discuss the process. If you have ever lived or traveled in a different country, or if you are part of a distinctive subculture in your own country, you know that others do things differently. For example, in Chinese culture when someone shows admiration for something done well, the appropriate response in the Chinese social script is to respond with modesty. According to the script, the admirer's next response should show even greater admiration for the accomplishment (Han, 2011). If you are new to a culture or situation, you may find yourself confused and unsure. In those kinds of situations you may feel like everyone knows what is going on but you—you do not know the script.

Three images displayed in a row. The first is of a man shopping for radishes, the second is of the same man walking in the produce department with groceries in his basket, and the third is a large question mark.

©Getty Images/Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Thinkstock

Adhering to your script of grocery shopping, what might occur next in the sequence of events? What next event would violate your script for grocery shopping?

In a dating scenario between a heterosexual couple, it is likely the man will pick the woman up at her home for the first date, they will go to a restaurant, talk about their lives, hope to impress one another, and perhaps then attend a movie. The man will likely offer to pay for both the dinner and the movie. Not all first dates follow this pattern, but many do (Eaton & Rose, 2012; Laner & Ventrone, 2000). Like schemas, we use scripts to make sense of and organize our experience. Schemas involve our expectations for things or concepts, while scripts involve our expectations for events or sequences of events.

Dating scripts can be quite detailed and can include behaviors that are different for men and women. In a 1989 study, undergraduate students listed 19 different actions that women would engage in and 27 different actions for men. Most of these students agreed on what belonged in the script, indicating that scripts are shared within a culture (Rose & Frieze, 1989). Students noted that certain foods were date foods and others were not; foods that could be eaten neatly, foods that were not too smelly, and foods that were not likely to cause bad breath were suggested date foods (Amiraian & Sobal, 2009). Dating scripts go beyond the first date, implicating how a relationship should develop over time. When partners share a script for how the relationship should develop, they show greater relationship satisfaction (Holmberg & MacKenzie, 2002). For example, if both partners expect to call one another daily and go out on a date every Friday night, each will be more satisfied than if one is expecting only a couple phone calls a week and a date every other Saturday night.

The effects of scripts on our lives are not always benign or helpful. A script that supports risky sexual behavior, such as not using a condom, may lead to high-risk behavior and, therefore, increased rates of infection with sexually transmitted diseases (Bowleg, Lucas, & Tschann, 2004; Hussen, Bowleg, Sangaramoorthy, & Malebranche, 2012). Sexual scripts come from parents, peers, school, television and the movies, as well as pornography (Hussen, et al., 2012). Sexual scripts might also be learned from romance novels. Such novels generally have very similar sexual scripts and these scripts have changed little over the last 20 years (Menard & Cabrera, 2011). A sexual script includes when and where a couple has sex. For example, some might expect sex after a few dates while others may need to know their partner for months or be engaged or married before engaging in sexual intercourse. Partners might expect to have sex in a bed in one of their bedrooms or in some other location in their living space, their car, or in a hotel. The script will also include elements of the encounter itself such as who initiates sex, length of foreplay, type of activities expected in foreplay, and the use of condoms or other barriers that reduce the risk of sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy.

The ability to describe a script or put events in a script in the correct order seems to lie in the frontal lobe of the brain, directly behind the forehead. People with brain damage to this part of the brain sometimes show difficulties with scripts (Grafman, 1989). Our ability to work with scripts can also be influenced by age. Older adults had more difficulty correctly ordering extensive scripts than younger adults (Allain et al., 2007). For example, an older adult may have more difficulty accurately describing the sequence of events needed to change a flat tire.

Test Yourself

Click on each question below to reveal the answer.

How are schemas and scripts similar?

How might schemas lead to false or mistaken memories?

5.3 Heuristics

Quick processing is a theme of our cognitive systems. As discussed, schemas help us keep information organized and can help in memory, and scripts help us know what to do without expending a lot of energy trying to figure out what is appropriate in a given situation. When making judgments we also attempt to get quick answers. The shortcuts we use in making judgments are heuristics. If you were having trouble answering an abstract problem, you might try to think about it concretely, or draw a picture in an attempt to answer the question quickly, without further taxing your cognitive system. Just as schemas and scripts can be helpful to us, heuristics can also be helpful—we are likely to quickly come up with a pretty good answer. But just as schemas can cause us to remember something was there when it was not, heuristics can lead to incorrect judgments. Researchers who evaluate heuristics most often focus on what happens when heuristics fail us and we make incorrect judgments. Despite the problems they sometimes create, heuristics quickly provide us with a good-enough answer most of the time.


Heuristics and their impact on our lives.

Critical Thinking Questions

How do heuristics function in daily life?

How are heuristics studied in social psychology?

Availability Heuristic

Are there more words in the English language that begin with the letter "R," or that have the letter "R" as the third letter of the word? Tversky and Kahneman (1973) asked participants in their study to respond to this question. Most people responded that there are more words with "R" as the first letter, estimating that there are about twice as many with "R" as the first letter than with "R" as the third letter. How do people make this judgment? If you solved this like most people do, you thought briefly about how many words you knew that had "R" as the first letter (relatives, rainbow, rich, run). Then you thought about how many words you knew that had "R" as the third letter (park, more, marshmallow). As you made those calculations, you realized that you were able to come up with many more words with "R" as the first letter than "R" as the third letter. Words starting with "R" were more available to you in your memory.

Making a judgment this way, you and the research participants were using the availability heuristic. The availability heuristic involves the tendency to make judgments about the frequency of something or the likelihood of an event occurring by considering how available it was in memory. Instances that come more easily to mind, and thus are more available, are judged to be more likely. As noted earlier, these strategies often get us the right answer, but in the case of the position of the "R" our judgment is wrong. There are actually more words in the English language with "R" as the third letter than "R" as the first letter. Often this type of judgment will provide you with the right answer, but, as in this instance, there is room for error.

We can apply this to other realms and other experiences. How successful is online dating? Many people will tell you about a cousin or coworker who met and is happily married to someone found on an online dating site. You may have such a story yourself. But how often do you hear the stories about unsuccessful searchers who gave up on online dating in frustration? Occasionally, perhaps, but because we hear more of the happily-ever-after stories and fewer stories of frustration, many of us assume online dating is successful for the majority of those who engage in it.

Test Yourself

Click on the question below to reveal the answer.

Why does the availability heuristic have the word availability in its name?

Representativeness Heuristic

"Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations" (Tversky & Kahneman, 1983, p. 297). Which of the following is more likely?

Linda is a bank teller.

Linda is a bank teller and active in the feminist movement.

If you are like most people you chose answer b. Why? Most people say they chose b because Linda sounds to them like someone who would be active in the feminist movement who happens to be a bank teller rather than just a stereotypical bank teller. If you answered this way, for this reason, you were using something called the representativeness heuristic. The representativeness heuristic involves making decisions based on how similar someone or something is to the typical, or representative, person or situation. Because Linda seems like your typical vision of someone in the feminist movement, you choose b.

Expand Your Knowledge:

Heuristic Simulation

Want to think more about the representativeness and availability heuristics? You can participate in simulations of heuristics at http://cat.xula.edu/thinker/decisions/heuristics/. Other heuristics are described as well. After making your own judgments, you can read about usual answers and explanations for these answers.

The representativeness heuristic will often get you to the right answer when you are making quick decisions. But in the above example, Linda is more likely to be just a bank teller than to be both a bank teller and active in the feminist movement. There are more bank tellers than there are bank tellers who are active in the feminist movement. When we rate two things occurring together as more likely than one of those things occurring alone, we engage in the conjunction fallacy. The conjunction fallacy is the error of believing that two events occurring together are more likely than either of those events occurring by themselves. It is a fallacy because logic dictates a single event is more likely than that same event happening with another event.

Another piece of faulty reasoning that may be behind these heuristics is the base rate fallacy (Kahneman & Tversky, 1973). Consider the following: Walter is a 47-year-old man who reads poetry, watches PBS, and plays golf in his spare time. Which is more likely: that Walter is an Ivy League professor or that Walter is a truck driver? For most of us, Walter sounds like an Ivy League professor. Using the representativeness heuristic, we solve this problem by thinking about whether Walter is more like a typical Ivy League professor than a typical truck driver. But Walter is more likely to be a truck driver. Why? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012) 1.6 million heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers are employed in the United States, to say nothing of elsewhere in the world. Consider how many Ivy League professors there are. With only eight Ivy League schools, with between a little under 1,000 faculty (Dartmouth and Brown) to just over 4,000 (Pennsylvania and Columbia) per school, there are about 19,500 Ivy League professors. Given the very large number of truck drivers and relatively small number of Ivy League professors, it is much more likely that Walter is among the large group than the small group. When we make a decision about the likelihood of something and ignore the number of instances of that in the population (of people, actions, diagnoses, etc.) we are victims of the base rate fallacy.

Test Yourself

Click on each question below to reveal the answer.

Why is the conjunction fallacy called a fallacy?

How does the base rate fallacy contribute to making an incorrect judgment when using the representativeness heuristic?

Affect Heuristic

Expand Your Knowledge:

Affect Heuristic

Research on how people understand numbers shows that while frequencies and percentages are easily understood, absolute frequencies are given greater weight. Absolute frequencies are perceived to be larger than equivalent frequencies or percentages. Although there may be other things going on, the text explains this as at least partly due to the affect heuristic. We connect emotionally to absolute frequencies (30 people with cancer) in a way we do not with percentages (30% of the group has cancer). Click here for an article explaining the research "Numerical Information Can Be Persuasive or Informative Depending on How it's Presented."

Source: Science Daily/University of Toronto.

Imagine you are on a parole board deciding whether to parole an inmate. You are told that 20 in every 100 people released under similar circumstances as this inmate go on to commit a violent crime. Would you parole the person or deny parole? What if you were told that 20% of people released who are like this inmate go on to commit a violent crime? Research participants have been asked similar questions. Those given information using relative frequency, the first form of question, believed there was greater danger than those with information in statistical form (Slovic, Monahan, & MacGregor, 2000). Rationally, we know that 20 out of every 100 people is equivalent to 20%, but we process these bits of information differently. When this information is presented in relative frequency form, in this case the number of instances out of 100, people imagine 20 perpetrators of violent crimes—a disturbing image. These images lead to a gut-level negative emotional reaction. The statistical form, a percentage in this case, seems to separate us from that image, and therefore reduces the negative affect (emotional reaction). We use our gut-level reactions to help us make decisions (Slovic, Peters, Finucane, & MacGregor, 2005). This tendency to use affective reactions (gut-level emotional reactions) as information to make judgments is called the affect heuristic. Someone looking for a home might use the affect heuristic. Although price, square footage, school district, and neighborhood may all be part of the judgment, if the affect heuristic is in play homebuyers might report that the home they chose just felt right.

These heuristics are not just a novelty of research studies. They can affect our lives. In a study of women who were being tested for genetic vulnerability for breast and ovarian cancer, researchers found extensive use of the availability heuristic and the representativeness heuristic (Kenen, Ardern-Jones & Eeles, 2003). The women described vivid stories of others they knew who had been treated for or died of cancer, which affected how vulnerable these women felt in terms of their cancer risk. The representativeness heuristic caused the women to judge their own cancer risk by how similar they felt they were to others who had died of cancer.

Test Yourself

Click on the question below to reveal the answer.

Why would information about a new literacy program that helps 60 out of every 100 children sound better to people than if the new literacy program were described as helping 60% of children?

Social Psychology in Depth: Heuristics and Politics

When you vote, do you spend all the time and energy required to consider all the issues for all the candidates? If not, you are not alone. Voters often use heuristics to make judgments about political candidates. The time required to find, sort through, and evaluate information on all the candidates is more than many people can afford. How, then, does that affect the decisions themselves?

R. R. Lau and D. P. Redlawsk (2001) note that voters often use party affiliation or candidate ideology to make quick decisions in voting. Most of the time such decision-making strategies get the voters what they want, but there are times when party affiliation or ideology can lead a voter astray. A candidate might be categorized incorrectly. For example, the media may say that a candidate for governor is a conservative when she is actually more of a moderate in her policies. Candidates may also differ from the party line. A voter may assume that because the candidate is Republican she is pro-life, but she may actually be pro-choice.

Beyond party affiliation and ideology, a voter might also use endorsements to make decisions. If a favorite celebrity shows support for a particular candidate, that voter might choose to vote for that candidate. Endorsements may come from individuals one trusts, like a close friend or a celebrity, or from organizations one believes in, like the National Rifle Association or the National Organization for Women.

Polling data also provides a simple cue to a voter. When a particular candidate is ahead in the polls, voters might vote for that candidate because that candidate is popular or because they perceive that candidate will win. Candidate appearance can also influence voters.

The researchers found that less sophisticated voters made poorer decisions when they relied on these heuristics. These voters would have been better served if they had examined the issues the candidates stood for and made a logical, rational choice rather than relying on heuristics. Using a shortcut was detrimental to decision making. More sophisticated voters, those with greater interest and knowledge of the political system, made good decisions while using heuristics. This finding is somewhat ironic given that sophisticated voters are least likely to need heuristics, but they were the ones whose decisions making did not suffer from using them.

5.4 Errors in Judgment

Heuristics often get us the correct answer and do so quickly. At times, however, our cognitive systems use shortcuts that make it more difficult for us to find the right answer. These ways of thinking create and perpetuate errors by leading us to keep believing in something even after our reasons for believing have been disconfirmed. The cognitive shortcuts might also cause us to ignore or discount information that goes against our beliefs. When we believe we have more control than we actually do, we are making an error in our judgment.

Belief Perseverance

Imagine you were presented with evidence that firefighters who are risk takers are better firefighters. These firefighters are willing to do risky things like climb up tall ladders and run into burning buildings. Their risk-taking tendencies also help them to find new and inventive ways to fight fires. After you have seen this evidence you are then told it is completely false. There is no relationship better firefighters' ability to fight fires and their risk-taking tendencies. Would you continue to believe what you were told? Researchers found that research participants presented with evidence did continue to believe, even after the researchers told them they had falsified the data. They continued to believe it when the researchers checked with them one week later (Anderson, 1983). Maybe because the idea that risk taking is needed in firefighting is so self-evident, it is the logical thing to believe, even when the story is debunked. The problem with this conclusion is that the researchers only told half of the participants that good firefighters are risk takers. The other half were told that risk aversion was a good quality in firefighters. Firefighters need to carefully analyze situations and only go into a burning building when they know the risks, so they can get themselves and others out safely. The participants told about the positive effects of risk avoidance continued to believe the story they had been told even after they found out it was fabricated.

The tendency to believe something even after the initial reasons for that belief are discredited is called belief perseverance. Belief perseverance can be problematic in many situations. For example, if your romantic interest becomes secretive, you might suspect him or her of cheating on you. Even when you find out the secretiveness was part of planning a romantic surprise for you, your suspicion might remain. Students who come to believe they lack a certain ability may persevere with that belief despite evidence that their poor performance is a result of poor instruction, rather than inability (Lepper, Ross, & Lau, 1986).

One way to counteract belief perseverance is to come up with explanations that are opposite of that belief. When research participants had to explain why risk-averse firefighters might be good firefighters, the opposite of their initial belief, they showed less belief perseverance (Anderson, 1982). However, if people try to come up with an alternative for their initial belief and find it difficult to do so, they come to hold their initial belief more strongly. When using the availability heuristic, people assume that an explanation that is difficult to think of is an unlikely explanation. Another, counterintuitive way to fight against belief perseverance is to ask people to come up with a large number of explanations for the initial belief (Nestler, 2010). If it is difficult to develop 10 reasons why risk-taking firefighters might be better firefighters, then people come to believe that conclusion less.

Confirmation Bias

Once a belief is established, people tend to search for information that will confirm that belief, a phenomenon called the confirmation bias. This is not something people do consciously or deliberately (Gibson, Sanbonmatsu, & Posavac, 1997). Nonetheless, when information is presented, the material that supports a preexisting belief is seen as convincing while material that refutes a belief is examined closely and criticized (Lord, Ross, & Lepper, 1979). For example, a professor might evaluate a student paper whose argument is in line with his beliefs on economic policy very favorably. However, he might attack the logic or arguments of a paper that goes against his position on economic policy, even if it is as well-written as the other paper.

Black and white photo of a newspaper stand holding two different newspapers from the same day. The first displays the headline "Ike Ignores M'Carthy" and the second displays the headline "Ike Answers McCarthy."

©Bettman/Corbis/AP Images

A person's pre-existing belief might be confirmed by reading a newspaper that supports his or her opinions.

This tendency might be particularly dangerous in criminal cases. When someone commits a crime, police and lawyers need to find the person responsible and make a case against that person. If the police and prosecutors believe a particular person is guilty they are likely to search for information that confirms that belief and may discount or ignore information that goes against their belief. If they are correct in the guilt of the person, belief perseverance is not too problematic. It is when an innocent person is accused that belief perseverance is most dangerous. For example, early identification of a particular suspect colors perceptions of later evidence, even when that identification was made with little confidence in its accuracy (O'Brien, 2009). Police officers might push harder in interrogation for someone they believe to be guilty than someone they are less sure of and see evidence of someone's innocence as less reliable (Ask, Rebelius, & Granhag, 2008; Kassin, Goldstein, & Savitsky, 2003; Kerstholt, & Eikelboom, 2007). Also, when a potentially guilty suspect has been identified, fewer alternative avenues may be pursued (O'Brien, 2009; Rassin, Eerland, & Kuijpers, 2010).

Keep in mind that this is an unconscious process. Serious, well-meaning, and ethical police and lawyers may fall victim to this general human tendency. Individuals in other professions are just as likely to experience belief perseverance. Psychiatrists, for example, may seek information to confirm a certain diagnosis they believe to be true (Mendel, et al., 2011). One technique that can be helpful to fight against the confirmation bias is to deliberately discuss evidence both for the belief and against it (O'Brien, 2009). Arguing against a belief can help make people aware of other possibilities and explanations.

Illusion of Control

Our cognitive shortcuts do not only allow us to maintain and persevere in our beliefs—even when reasons behind our beliefs are no longer valid, they also cause us to make errors in our judgments about the control we have in situations that involve chance. Despite knowledge to the contrary, we treat many chance situations as circumstances in which our choice, skill, or hard work will make a difference—a phenomenon shown in Ellen Langer's studies of illusion of control. In the 1970s, Ellen Langer did a series of studies investigating the amount of control people believe they have in situations involving chance. In one of these studies, Langer asked people if they would like to buy a $1 card to participate in a $50 lottery. Half of the participants were allowed to choose the card from a deck of cards, the other half were handed a card from that same deck. When Langer came back later to ask if they would be willing to sell the card they owned, those who had chosen their card wanted an average of $8.67 for the card. Those who were handed a card said they would sell for $1.96. Why the difference? Langer proposed that choice gave people a sense that they had some control over the outcome of the lottery, even though all cards were equally likely to win.

When people participate in a game of chance and believe that their actions somehow influence the outcome, they have an illusion of control. An illusion of control occurs any time we approach a situation believing and acting as though we have more control that we actually have. This is true when we have no control and act as though we have some control, or when we have some control and act as though we have more control than we do (Presson & Benassi, 1996). The illusion is greater when people are more involved in the task and when the task or aspects of it are more familiar (Langer, 1975; Thompson, 1999; Wohl & Enzle, 2002). A state lottery that allows you to choose your own numbers is using both of these to increase your sense of control. By choosing your own numbers you are more involved. Many people who play the lottery play with familiar, sometimes much loved, numbers such as birth dates or wedding anniversaries. Success at a task also increases illusion of control. When people get the outcome they desire, particularly at the beginning of a string of outcomes, their illusion of control is greater (Langer & Roth, 1975; Thompson, 1999). For example, if someone was playing a slot machine and had a string of wins early on, that person would have a stronger illusion of control and may, with that illusion, be more likely to continue to play.

Test Yourself

Click on each question below to reveal the answer.

While doing an Internet search on the topic of gun control, Andy quickly zeroes in on a story that is consistent with his views, and ignores a different story that goes against his point of view. Which of the concepts discussed in this section best describes Andy's behavior?

Before rolling the dice in a game, Sue always blows on the dice and whispers what she wants them to be. Which of the concepts above best describes Sue's behavior?

5.5 Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Painting of Oedipus killing his biological father.


Self-fulfilling prophecy is even prevalent in ancient mythology. Oedipus, a Greek king, was told that he would one day kill his biological father and marry his biological mother. This dated painting depicts Oedipus killing his father.

Can our judgments about another person affect that person's behavior? In other words, can one person's expectations affect how another person acts? This was a question investigated by Robert Rosenthal in a study involving teachers and students (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1966). After giving students what appeared to be a test of intelligence, Rosenthal told teachers that certain students were predicted to "bloom" over the school year; that is, these students were expected to make great intellectual gains. In reality these students' names were randomly chosen from each classroom. The students were not told anything about the tests or what their teachers expected of them. When the researchers returned at the end of the school year, they found that these randomly chosen students did indeed make gains. The researchers concluded that because the students were no different from their classmates at the beginning of the study, it must have been the teachers' expectations that affected the students' performance.

This tendency for our expectations to affect the behaviors of others is called the self-fulfilling prophecy. We "prophesy" someone else's behavior, that is, we believe something will happen, and through our actions resulting from that belief, we make it come true (see Figure 5.2). The behaviors we engage in to make these prophecies come true is behavioral confirmation. Left alone, the prophesied behavior would likely not have happened; these students would not have made the gains they did. Because of the prophecy and the teacher's subsequent behavior, the teacher managed to create a situation where the prophecy would come true. The teachers called on the students they expected to make gains more often, gave them more feedback, and created a generally more welcoming learning environment. Researchers themselves can fall victim to the self-fulfilling prophecy. When doing an experiment a researcher has expectations for how the study will turn out, stated in the hypothesis for the study. If controls are not put in place, the researcher might act in a way that leads the participants to behave in a way that fulfills the experimenter's expectations.

Figure 5.2: The self-fulfilling prophecy

A square-shaped flow chart showing the cycle of the self-fulfilling prophecy (outer portion of the figure) with an example (inner portion of the figure). The top of the other square is labeled "our actions towards others" and an arrow labeled "impact" points right and down to the right side of the square labeled "others beliefs about us." An arrow labeled "cause" points down and to the left to the bottom portion of the square labeled "others actions toward us." An arrow labeled "reinforce" points to the left and up to the left side of the square labeled "our beliefs about ourselves." An arrow labeled "influence" points up and to the right to the top portion of the square, completing the chart. The inner portion of the figure illustrates an example of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Starting at the top of the square and moving clockwise to the right, bottom, and left of the square are the following sentences: " Monica's belief: Men never want to talk to me because I am not attractive. I have nothing to offer."; "Monica's action: I do not initiate or engage in conversations with men and I do not take care of myself physically."; "Jarrod's belief: She is not interested in getting to know me and does not want to talk."; "Jarrod's action: Jarrod does not initiate or engage in conversation with Monica."

The self-fulfilling prophecy demonstrates that our beliefs about others and subsequent actions toward them can influence the beliefs and actions of others.

One theory that helps explain how individuals come to behave in ways others expect them to is self-verification theory. According to self-verification theory people want to confirm or verify what they believe to be true about themselves (Swann, 1987). Even when our beliefs about ourselves are negative we desire to confirm those beliefs because it allows for a stable self-concept and a predictable social world (North & Swann, 2009). For example, if you believed you were awkward in social situations, you would want others to acknowledge that because then you would not have to change your self-concept and others would not expect you to be suave and self-confident in social situations. Self-verification interacts with self-fulfilling prophecy when the behaviors of the person making the prophecy lead the person to internalize those beliefs and then work to fulfill that sense of self. For example, in a longitudinal study of teens and their mothers, Madon et al. (2008) found that a mother's beliefs about her child's future drinking behavior influenced the child's belief about his or her future drinking behavior. The child's belief lead to self-verification behaviors and, therefore, the fulfillment of the mother's drinking prophecies.

Self-fulfilling prophecies have multifarious effects. As noted, parent's beliefs about their child's underage drinking can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to greater or lesser drinking later on depending on the prophecy (Madon, Guyll, Spoth, Cross, & Hilbert, 2003; Madon, Willard, Guyll, Trudeau, & Spoth, 2006). Within relationships, researchers found that women with high rejection sensitivity—in other words, those who expect that the other person will reject them—act in ways that lead to rejecting responses. These women prophesied rejection and, by their actions, created rejection in their romantic partners (Downey, Freitas, Michaelis, & Khouri, 1998). Self-fulfilling prophecy has even been proposed as partially responsible for the extreme violence found in the Pelican Bay State Prison, a super-maximum security prison for extremely violent and dangerous prisoners (King, Steiner, & Breach, 2008). Researchers argue that the expectation of prisoners to be very violent in the prison environment creates behavior that leads to a fulfillment of that prophecy.

The self-fulfilling prophecy may influence our experiences of pain or illness. Teens who believed they would have more pain after surgery ended up feeling more pain and using more pain medication than those who believed their pain would be minimal (Logan & Rose, 2005). It may be that the teens who were expecting pain were more anxious and paid more attention to every twinge of discomfort, leading to a more severe experience of pain. In a similar way, naval cadets who believed they would experience less sea sickness and any sea sickness they experienced would be unlikely to affect their work did better when at sea (Eden & Zuk, 1995). In neither of these situations did the prophecy eliminate the pain or sickness, but it did make it better for both.

Test Yourself

Click on the question below to reveal the answer.

How is it that self-fulfilling prophecies come true?


Our cognitive systems are designed to work as efficiently as possible, with the automatic system taking over as much as it can, while the conscious system deals with the nuanced and difficult problems that the automatic system cannot handle. The use of schemas and heuristics helps make this possible. These mental shortcuts can be helpful to us, but, at times, do lead to errors.

Chapter Summary

Conscious and Automatic Processes

The human cognitive system operates on two levels, a conscious level and an automatic level. The conscious system is directed by the individual and works slowly and deliberately on problems to provide nuanced answers. The automatic system works outside of conscious awareness and without intention. The automatic system works quickly, is largely effortless, and provides general answers.

Schemas and Scripts

Schemas are knowledge structures that allow for organization of information. Schemas can be helpful in memory but can also provide misleading cues when something we expect because of our schema is not present. Scripts are knowledge structures about events. Scripts can be helpful by allowing individuals to predict what will happen and to, therefore, engage in expected behavior.


The automatic system allows us to make quick judgments through the use of mental shortcuts called heuristics. When we use the availability heuristic, we judge the likelihood of an event based on how available that event is in memory. The representativeness heuristic involves judging the likelihood of an event based on how closely it resembles the typical case. When we make errors in judgments using these heuristics it may be due, in part, to the conjunction fallacy or the base rate fallacy. With the conjunction fallacy, we judge the likelihood of two things occurring together as more likely than one of those occurring alone. When we ignore the rate of events and make judgments that suggest the unlikely event is more likely, we have engaged in the base rate fallacy. The affect heuristic occurs when we make judgments based on gut-level emotional reactions to events.

Errors in Judgment

Particular ways of thinking can contribute to errors in judgment. When we engage in belief perseverance we continue to believe in something even after our reasons for believing have been disconfirmed. Confirmation bias occurs when we ignore or discount information that goes against our beliefs and search for and pay attention to information that fits with our beliefs. When we believe we have more control in a situation we have an illusion of control.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Others' expectations of us can influence our behavior. Researchers have found that prophecies for behavior—in other words, what people think others will do—can become self-fulfilling when individuals act in ways that elicit that behavior from the other.

Critical Thinking Questions

How might schemas be helpful and harmful in one's life?

What might your life be like if there were no scripts?

Consider a time when you might have used the availability, representativeness, or affect heuristic in making a judgment. How did that affect the accuracy of your judgment?

Although the examples in the chapter concern times when heuristics lead us to incorrect answers, why are heuristics helpful and used regularly by us?

What might you do to recognize and fight against belief perseverance and confirmation bias?

Have self-fulfilling prophecies ever affected your life?

Key Terms

Click on each key term to reveal the definition.

affect heuristic

automatic system

availability heuristic

base rate fallacy

behavioral confirmation

belief perseverance

confirmation bias

conjunction fallacy

conscious system


illusion of control

representativeness heuristic



self-fulfilling prophecy

self-verification theory

Stroop effect